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The author traces the misapplication of Western, body-oriented concepts of gender through the history of gender discourses in Yoruba studies. THE INVENTION OF WOMEN demonstrates that biology as a rationale for organizing the social world is a Western construction not applicable in Yoruban culture where social organization was determined by relative age .
Year:
1997
Publisher:
University of Minnesota Press
Language:
english
Pages:
229
ISBN 10:
0816624402
ISBN 13:
9780816624409
File:
PDF, 14.36 MB
Download (pdf, 14.36 MB)

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The Invention
of Women

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The Invention of Women
MAKING AN AFRICAN SENSE OF
WESTERN GENDER DISCOURSES

Oyeronke Oyewumi

University of Minnesota Press
Minneapolis
London

Copyright 1997 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Published by the University of Minnesota Press
111 Third Avenue South, Suite 290, Minneapolis, MN 55401-2520
http://www.upress.umn.edu
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
Third Printing 2001

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Oyewumi, Oyeronke.
The invention of women : making an African sense of western gender
discourses / Oyeronke Oyewumi.
p.
cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-8166-2440-2 (hc : alk. paper). - ISBN 0-8166-2441-0 (pb :
alk. paper)
1. Women, Yoruba - Social conditions. 2. Women, Yoruba - History.
3. Philosophy, Yoruba. 4. Sex role - Nigeria. 5. Sex differences Nigeria. 6. Body, Human - Social aspects - Nigeria.
I. Title.
DT515.45.Y67094 1997
305.48'896333-dc21
97-36162
The University of Minnesota is an
equal-opportunity educator and employer.

For my children,
the source of life and its inspiration:
Olasiinbo
Akinboye
and
Mapate
Omolayo
Omolaso
Omgniyi
Omonide

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Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments
A Note on Orthography

ix
xix
xxiii

Chapter 1

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and
African Subjects

1

Chapter 2

(Re)constituting the Cosmology and Sociocultural
Institutions of Qyo-Yoruba

31

Chapter 3

Making History, Creating Gender: The Invention of
Men and Kings in the Writing of Oyo Oral Traditions

80

Chapter 4

Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism

121

Chapter 5

The Translation of Cultures: Engendering Yoruba
Language, Orature, and World-Sense

; 157

Notes

181

Bibliography

209

Index

223

This page intentionally left blank

Preface
HIS BOOK is about the epistemological shift occasioned by the
imposition of Western gender categories on Yoruba discourse.
Since there is a clear epistemological foundation to cultural
knowledge, the first task of the study is to understand the epistemological basis of both Yoruba and Western cultures. This endeavor is
best described as archaeological, in that it is concerned with revealing
the most basic but hidden assumptions, making explicit what has been
merely implicit, and unearthing the taken-for-granted assumptions underlying research concepts and theories. Only when such assumptions
are exposed can they be debated and challenged.
This book is not about the so-called woman question. The woman
question is a Western-derived issue — a legacy of the age-old somatocentricity in Western thought. It is an imported problem, and it is
not indigenous to the Yoruba. If it has become relevant in Yoruba
studies, the history of that process needs to be told. This study has become part of that history. When I started the research, I believed that
it was possible for me to do a study on gender in a contemporary
Yoruba community that would primarily address the question from a
local perspective. It soon became clear to me that because of the academic practice of relying on disciplinary theories and conceptual debates
originating in and dominated by the West, many of the questions that informed the initial research project were not (and could not be) generated
from local conditions. But I continued to believe that the problem could
be surmounted in the process.
As the work and my thinking progressed, I came to realize that the
fundamental category "woman" — which is foundational in Western
gender discourses — simply did not exist in Yorubaland prior to its
sustained contact with the West. There was no such preexisting group
characterized by shared interests, desires, or social position. The cultural
logic of Western social categories is based on an ideology of biological determinism: the conception that biology provides the rationale for
the organization of the social world. Thus this cultural logic is actually
a "bio-logic." Social categories like "woman" are based on body-type

T

ix

X • • Prefac nd are laborated i

Preface

n relation to and in opposition to another category:

man; the presence or absence of certain organs determines social position. It is not surprising, then, that feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith
notes that in Western societies "a man's body gives credibility to his
utterance, whereas a woman's body takes it away from hers."1 Judith
Lorber also notes the depth and ubiquity of notions of biology in the social realm when she writes that "gender is so pervasive in our [Western]
society we assume it is bred into our genes."2 Given this, it is obvious
that if one wanted to apply this Western "bio-logic" to the Yoruba social world (i.e., use biology as an ideology for organizing that social
world), one would have first to invent the category "woman" in Yoriiba
discourse.
The assertion that "woman" as a social category did not exist in
Yoruba communities should not be read as antimaterialist hermeneutics,
a kind of poststructuralist deconstructing of the body into dissolution.
Far from it — the body was (and still is) very corporeal in Yoruba communities. But, prior to the infusion of Western notions into Yoruba
culture, the body was not the basis of social roles, inclusions, or exclusions; it was not the foundation of social thought and identity. Most
academic studies on the Yoruba have, however, assumed that "bodyreasoning" was present in the Yoruba indigenous culture. They have
assumed the Western constructions as universal, which has led to the
uncritical usage of these body-based categories for interpreting Yoruba
society historically and in the contemporary period.
Consequently, in order to analyze how and why gender is constructed
in Yoruba society (and indeed in other contemporary African societies),
the role and impact of the West are of utmost importance, not only because most African societies came under European rule by the end of
the nineteenth century but also because of the continued dominance of
the West in the production of knowledge. In African studies, historically
and currently, the creation, constitution, and production of knowledge
have remained the privilege of the West. Therefore, body-reasoning and
the bio-logic that derives from the biological determinism inherent in
Western thought have been imposed on African societies. The presence
of gender constructs cannot be separated from the ideology of biological
determinism. Western conceptual schemes and theories have become so
widespread that almost all scholarship, even by Africans, utilizes them
unquestioningly.
This book grew out of the realization of Western dominance in
African studies. That realization made it necessary to undertake a reexamination of the concepts underpinning discourse in African studies,
consciously taking into account African experiences. Clearly, all con-

Preface

XI

cepts come with their own cultural and philosophical baggage, much
of which becomes alien distortion when applied to cultures other than
those from which they derive. Thus, as a first step toward mapping the
cultural logic of an African society like that of the Yoruba, conceptual categories and theoretical formulations that derive from Western
experiences had to be unpacked.
After all these considerations, I found that it was no longer possible
for me to do a study of "gender" (a biologically conceived category)
in a Yoruba locality; I first had to write a history of gender discourses
in Yoruba studies. It became clear to me that, to make an analogy
with Michel Foucault's explication of the history of sexuality, the history of gender — that is, the history of what functions in academic
discourse as a specific field of truth — must first be written from the
viewpoint of a history of discourses.3 Further, an analysis of some of the
material reorganization that took place as a result of British colonization had to be undertaken. My explication of colonization, however,
does not rest on the period of formal colonization. I assume the period of the Atlantic slave trade as an integral part of this process. In
Yoruba history, there is no logical way of separating these two periods.
They were logically one process unfolding over many centuries. Without attention to the global material dominance of the West, there can
be no comprehensive accounting for its continued hegemony in ideas
and knowledge-production. Because of that, this study is also about the
sociology of knowledge.
This study, then, seeks to document why and how gender came to
be constructed in the Yoruba society of southwestern Nigeria (Yorubaland was formally colonized by the British from 1862 to 1960) and how
gender is constituted as a fundamental category in academic scholarship
on the Yoruba. The major question addressed is this: What are the relationships between, on the one hand, bio-anatomical distinctions and
gender differences as a part of social reality and, on the other hand,
gender constructs as something that the observer brings to a particular
situation?
I interrogate the ways in which Western assumptions about sex differences are used to interpret Yoruba society and, in the process, create
a local gender system. My analysis challenges a number of ideas, some
mentioned above, common in many Western feminist writings:
1. Gender categories are universal and timeless and have been present
in every society at all times. This idea is often expressed in a
biblical tone, as if to suggest that "in the beginning there was
gender."

aaaaaaaaa

Preface

2. Gender is a fundamental organizing principle in all societies and is
therefore always salient. In any given society, gender is everywhere.
3. There is an essential, universal category "woman" that is characterized by the social uniformity of its members.
4. The subordination of women is a universal.
5. The category "woman" is precultural, fixed in historical time and
cultural space in antithesis to another fixed category— "man."
I posit that these assumptions are a result of the fact that in Western
societies, physical bodies are always social bodies. As a consequence,
there is really no distinction between sex and gender, despite the many
attempts by feminists to distinguish the two. In the West, social categories have a long history of being embodied and therefore gendered.
According to anthropologist Shelly Errington, "Sex (with a capital'S') is
the gender system of the West." She continues: "But Sex is not the only
way to sort out human bodies, not the only way to make sense of sex.
One can easily imagine different cultural classifications and rationales
for gender categories, different scenarios that equally take into account
the evidence our bodies provide."4
The Yoruba case provides one such different scenario; and more than
that, it shows that the human body need not be constituted as gendered
or be seen as evidence for social classification at all times. In precolonial
Yoruba society, body-type was not the basis of social hierarchy: males
and females were not ranked according to anatomic distinction. The
social order required a different kind of map, not a gender map that
assumed biology as the foundation for social ranking.
I use the concepts "sex" and "gender" as synonyms. With regard
to Yoruba society in the precolonial period, however, I have coined
the terms "anatomic sex," "anatomic male," and "anatomic female"
to emphasize the nongendered attitude toward the relation between the
human body and social roles, positions, and hierarchies. In some places I
have shortened those terms to "anasex," "anamale," and "anafemale."
My purpose in qualifying these terms with "anatomic" (or "ana-") is
to show that the Yoruba distinctions were superficial and did not assume any social hierarchical dimensions, as they do in the West (Western
social categories derive essentially from a perceived sexual dimorphism
of the human body). Gender was simply not inherent in human social
organization.
Although precolonial Yoruba cultural logic did not use the human
body as the basis for social ranking (in no situation in Yoruba society was a male, by virtue of his body-type, inherently superior to a

Preface

xiii

female), Yoruba society was hierarchically organized, from slaves to
rulers. The ranking of individuals depended first and foremost on seniority, which was usually defined by relative age. Another fundamental
difference between Yoruba and Western social categories involves the
highly situational nature of Yoruba social identity. In Yoruba society
before the sustained infusion of Western categories, social positions of
people shifted constantly in relation to those with whom they were
interacting; consequently, social identity was relational and was not essentialized. In many European societies, in contrast, males and females
have gender identities deriving from the elaboration of anatomic types;
therefore, man and woman are essentialized. These essential gender
identities in Western cultures attach to all social engagements no matter how far from the issues of reproduction such undertakings may be.
The classic example is that for many years women could not vote solely
because they were women. Another example is the genderization of professions to the extent that professional lexicons contain phrases such
as "woman pilot," "woman president," and "professor emerita," as if
whatever these women do in these occupations is different from what
men do in the same professions.
In light of the foregoing, I will argue that the concentration of feminist scholars on the status of women — an emphasis that presupposes
the existence of "woman" as a social category always understood to
be powerless, disadvantaged, and controlled and defined by men — can
lead to serious misconceptions when applied to 0yo-Yoruba society.5 In
fact, my central argument is that there were no women — defined in
strictly gendered terms — in that society. Again, the concept "woman"
as it is used and as it is invoked in the scholarship is derived from
Western experience and history, a history rooted in philosophical dischhhourses about the distinctions among body, mind, and soul and in ideas
about biological determinism and the linkages between the body and
the "social."6
Yorubaland covers a vast area, and despite homogenizing factors like
language and recent historical experiences, one can discern some significant institutional, cultural specificities in given locales. For example,
Ondo and a number of polities in eastern Yorubaland manifest cultural
specificities different from those present in 0yo-Yoruba culture. For my
purposes, then, it was necessary to limit somewhat the area to be studied. My primary unit of analysis is 0yo-Yoruba culture. That said, it
should be noted that those local cultural specificities were more pronounced before the sweeping changes that occurred in the civil war and
colonial and post-nineteenth-century periods. Because the goal of my research was to capture the broad, sweeping institutional changes brought

Xiv • Preface

preface

about by European domination, it made sense, in places, to open my perspective beyond Oyo-Yoruba culture. I should add here that language is
central to my study, and my engagement is with the Yoruba language as
spoken by the 0yo.7
Although it is clear that the findings of this study are applicable to
some other African societies, I hesitate to apply them broadly, primarily because I do not want to fall into the common trap of erasing a
multitude of African cultures by making facile generalizations, a process
that results in unwarranted homogenization. The erasure of African cultures, a major defect of many studies on Africa, motivates my efforts
not to make a simplistic general case about Africa from the Yoruba
example. There are two common ways in which African cultures are
discounted, even in studies that are purportedly about African societies.
The first is through the uncritical imposition on African cultures of supposedly objective conceptual categories and theories that are in origin
and constitution bound to Western culture. The second is what I call the
mishmash theory of Africa — the result of which is unbridled homogenization of African cultures even when it is clear that these cultures do
not share identical institutions or histories. There is no question that Africans have many things in common and that some generalizations are
possible. But care must be taken in deciding how these claims are to
be made and at what level they are to be applied given the paucity of
detailed, historically grounded, and culturally informed studies of many
African societies.
Another concern of this work is to historicize and account for androcentrism in the study of Yoruba history and culture. The assumption of
male privilege in many of these writings and in parts of Yoruba life today is questioned because there is evidence that this has not always been
the case. Additionally, I posit that although male dominance is present
in scholarship and popular writing on the Yoruba, such dominance in
Yoruba life both historically and today cannot be taken for granted to
the same degree in all places, institutions, and situations. For example,
in 1996 there were two female badle (village heads) in Ogbomoso. These
women were the torchbearers of their family heritage of rulership. I was
privileged to conduct a series of interviews with one of them — Baale
Maya (see chap. 3). What is remarkable is that such women are not
given the prominence that they deserve, even in the era of international
women's conferences — the emphasis, erroneously, is on how tradition
victimizes women.
The degree to which gender hierarchy manifests itself today in state
institutions is different from the degree to which it shows up in the
family or indigenous religions. How widespread it is, how deep, among

Preface

xv

which social groupings, and when and where it is manifested are empirical issues that call for research, not unquestioned assumptions. A related
issue is that scholars have assumed that present-day "customs" that they
encounter are always rooted in ancient traditions. I suggest that their
timelessness should not be taken for granted; some of them are "new
traditions."
Another theme, which has been mentioned above, is the role of
scholars in the process of gender-formation. I argue that concepts and
theoretical formulations are culture-bound and that scholars themselves
are not merely recorders or observers in the research process; they are
also participants. I posit, therefore, that even when African scholarship seeks to validate the specificity of the African experience, it does
so within the frameworks of European-derived categories of knowledge.
Hence, although the origins of body-reasoning may be locatable in European thought, its influences are everywhere, including the variety of
disciplines in African studies. Merely by analyzing a particular society
with gender constructs, scholars create gender categories. To put this another way: by writing about any society through a gendered perspective,
scholars necessarily write gender into that society. Gender, like beauty,
is often in the eye of the beholder. The idea that in dealing with gender
constructs one necessarily contributes to their creation is apparent in Judith Lorber's claim that "the prime paradox of gender is that in order
to dismantle the institution, you must first make it very visible."8 In actuality, the process of making gender visible is also a process of creating
gender.
Thus, scholarship is implicated in the process of gender-formation.
In a historical study of Zulu society in southern Africa, Keletso Atkins
objected to the theoretical fashion in scholarship of imposing gender constructs acontextually. Summarizing a number of Zulu historical
texts, Atkins notes:
So far as one is able to tell, these incidents cannot be made intelligible by relating them to fashionable concepts of the present day.
There are no allusions to gender relations in the aforementioned
texts; nowhere is there a discussion delineating jobs that fell within
the purview of women's work. To insist, then, that these incidents
somehow linked to gender issues would grossly misinterpret the
passages, assigning to them a meaning never intended.9
The present study draws attention to the pitfalls of interpreting "biological facts" and "statistical evidence" outside of the cultural frame of
reference from which they derive. It cannot be overstated that in African
studies a careful evaluation of the genealogy of concepts and theoret-

xvi

Preface

ical formulation must be integral to research. Ultimately, in research
endeavors, I argue for a cultural, context-dependent interpretation of
social reality. The context includes the social identity of the researcher,
the spatial and temporal location of the research, and the debates in the
academic literature. There is, of course, the fundamental question of the
relationship between research and social reality, an important question
given the policy bent of research — particularly in women's studies.
The connections between social identity, personal experiences, and
the nature of one's research and perspective are complex; often the linkages are unpredictable and nonlinear. Nevertheless, despite the many
postmodernist treatises deconstructing social identities, I would assert
that I am Yoruba. I was born into a large family, and the comings and
goings of my many relations constituted an important introduction into
Yoruba lifeways. In 1973, my father ascended the throne and became
the Soun (monarch) of Ogbomoso, a major 0yo-Yoruba polity of some
historical significance. Since then and up to the present, aafin Soun (the
palace) has been the place I call home. Daily, I have listened to the
drummers and heard the oriki (praise poetry) of my forebears recited
as the royal mothers rendered the poems to family members as greetings
as we passed through the saare — the courtyard in which the departed
monarchs are buried. Our ancestors are still very much with us.
The palace anchors the old town, which is surrounded on all sides
by the two marketplaces (Oja Igbo and Oja Jagun), markets that come
into their full glory at night. The aafin Soun is the center of daily rituals
and of a constant stream of townspeople coming to pay homage and
bringing their various stories to my father and mother. Spending time
with my mother, Igbayilola (the olori [senior royal wife]), whose "court"
is the first port of call for many of the ard Hit (townspeople), added yet
another vantage point from which to view this dynamic world. All these
happenings provided ample opportunity for me to observe and reflect on
the personal and public aspects of living culture.
The annual festivals, such as the Egungun, 0ole, and igbe, taught
me to recognize cultural continuity and made me appreciate indigenous
institutions, even in the midst of phenomenal changes. During the 0ole
festival, the Egungun (masquerade) of the five branches of the royal family would perform. I want to believe that all these events and processes
have been significant in shaping my views and some of the questions I
deal with in this book. On this count I cannot overemphasize the contributions of the conversations I had with my parents, older and younger
siblings, the many mothers and fathers in the palace, and the family in
general in the course of the many years of this research.

Prefaceii

xvii

Chapter 1 of this study reviews how Western social thought is rooted in
biology, using the body as the bedrock of the social order. It also looks at
the dominance of the West in the constitution of knowledge about Africa
and the implications of this privileged position as the reference point
in African studies. Chapter 2 examines 0yo-Yoruba society on its own
terms — that is, with an awareness that viewing that society through the
gendered lens of the West is a cause of distorted perception. Chapter
3 discusses how scholars apply Western paradigms on gender in their
own work on Africa, and it uses the received history of the Old 0yo
state as a point of entry into the question of reconstructing the past and
the problem of engendering history. Chapter 4 analyzes colonization as
a multifaceted process that stimulated the institutionalization of gender
categories in Yorubaland. Chapter 5 interrogates the impact of Yoruba/
English bilingualism on Yoruba society and the translation of Yoruba
orature into English, given that English is a gender-specific language and
Yoruba is not. The world we live in today — that is, by turns, both
multicultural and monocultural — is thus problematized. In a sense, this
book intends to raise many questions, while answering only some —
some of the empirical questions can only be resolved by future research.
It is my hope that the claims made and the questions raised will generate
debate and research on African societies that will consciously interrogate
embedded scholarly assumptions.

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Acknowledgments
American sociology is unaware of Africa. In the dark ages, Africa was
ceded over to anthropology as "the front lawn" of the discipline. Thus,
"African sociology" is considered an oxymoron. But some of us sociologists insist that there is much sociology to be done in Africa; and
we just do it. Against this background, I am grateful to Troy Duster
and Robert Blauner, who as members of my dissertation committee (this
book originated from my dissertation) guided me through the sociology department at Berkeley. Barbara Christian was the third member
of the committee; I thank her for unstinting intellectual support and
more throughout my time in graduate school. David Lloyd of the English department, as a friend, read the dissertation and provided generous
comments that goaded me to refine my ideas. Lula Fragd and Pauline
Wynter, members of a dissertation group, provided valuable comments
that were indispensable for the progress of the work.
Unlike sociology, feminist discourse is not impervious to Africa. The
problem, however, is that Africa constitutes a part of what Marnia
Lazreg (in The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question] calls
the "doom and gloom of the discursive domination" of the West. In
light of the "more liberated than thou attitude" of Western feminists toward African women and indeed women from other parts of the world,
Nkiru Nzegwu's painting Mirror on the Wall (reproduced on the cover
of this book) is most appropriate and appreciated. "Mirror, mirror on
the wall, who is the most liberated of them all?" is a constant refrain in
feminist discourse. I am grateful to Nkiru Nzegwu, friend, philosopher,
art historian, and artist, for drawing my attention to the painting, for
allowing me to use it, and for her many contributions, intellectual and
otherwise, to this project.
My heartfelt thanks go to my friends Naheed Islam, Thokozani Xaba,
and Hyun Ok Park for all those stimulating intellectual exchanges and
for making the Berkeley sociology department less provincial.
To my friends Leonie Hermantin, Zita Nunes, and Adhiambo Odaga:
thanks for being a positive part of my personal, political, and intellectual life.

xix

xx

Acknowledgments

This project had a long gestation period. Consequently, the list of institutions and persons who supported me at various points is a long one.
My most extended trip to Nigeria was paid for by a Ford Foundation
grant. I received a Population Council Fellowship in the Social Sciences,
an American Association of University Women (AAUW) International
Fellowship, and a postdoctoral Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship at
the Center for Advanced Feminist Study (CAFS) at the University of
Minnesota. Much appreciation goes to CAFS for providing access to a
feminist community from which my work benefited; my special thanks
go to Shirley Nelson Garner, who was the director at the time. The Institute for African Studies at the University of Ibadan provided office space
and an intellectual community that was indispensable to my work. Professors S. O. Babayemi and C. O. Adepegba were especially generous
with their time. My heartfelt gratitude goes to Professor Bolanle Awe,
the director of the institute; her work in history and Yoruba studies
continues to inspire me.
To my perpetual friends Olufunke Okome and 0jogbon Olufemi
Taiwo: I say thank you for being good "local informants"; the view of
the native is always indispensable. The help of my "country woman"
Ify Iweriebor was invaluable in making the manuscript more readable. I
deeply appreciate the help of Yetunde Laniran, friend and linguist, who
brought her expertise to my Yoruba language texts.
A number of scholars were willing to take my phone calls whenever I needed to make a Yoruba sense of one thing or another. In this
regard, I especially value the contribution of Olabiyi Yai, professor of
comparative literature, and Jacob Olupona, professor of religion.
At the University of California-Santa Barbara, my present place of
work, both Cedric Robinson and Gerald Home read and commented on
parts of the manuscript. Mimi Navarro, Carolyn Grapard, and Rachel
Bargiel, staff in the black studies department, have all contributed in one
way or another to the project. My deeply felt appreciation goes to them
all. I also express my deep appreciation to the University of CaliforniaSanta Barbara for extraordinary support for my work in general. The
award of numerous Regent Junior Faculty Fellowships for the summer
months in the last few years has been especially important for oiling the
wheels of progress.
I cannot thank enough Janaki Bakhle, my original editor at the University of Minnesota Press. Her enthusiasm for the project, even before
the dissertation was completed, constituted real encouragement. With
appreciation, I also mention Carrie Mullen, my present editor, who
finally brought the project to a close after Janaki left the press.
Finally, to my family and friends upon whom I continuously imposed

Acknowledgments xxi

xxi

strange and sometimes "unintelligible" questions: thank you for your
endurance. I have dedicated the book to my children, who endured
much and have managed to be born and to grow up in the midst of
the process of the writing of this endless book.
I must thank the many people (family and friends) in Ibadan, 0yo,
and Ogbomoso who shared their thoughts and parts of their lives with
me. E see o, Olorun yio se mmi ti yin naa. Ase o.
Of course I, and I alone, am responsible for "the bad" and "the ugly,"
if ever such things are found in this book.

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A Note on Orthography
Yoruba is a tonal language, with three underlying pitch levels for vowels
and syllabic nasals: the low tone is marked with a grave accent; the mid
tone is unmarked; and the high tone is indicated with an acute accent.
I have used tonal accents and subscript marks (e.g., e, o, s). Some syllables require two diacritics, as in my last name: Oyewumi, where an
acute accent joins with a grave accent over the e to form a v. As to the
subscript marks: the e is approximately equivalent to the e in the English word "yet"; the o is close to the o sound in "dog"; and the s is
close to the English sh sound. I have used tonal marks on the Yoruba
words and names that are part of my text. However, there are many
Yoruba names, especially of scholars, that remain unmarked because up
to this point, the tendency has been to discount the diacritics in African
languages. Yet without the diacritics, those words do not make sense.

XXlll

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Chapter 1

Visualizing the Body
WESTERN THEORIES AND AFRICAN SUBJECTS

HE IDEA that biology is destiny — or, better still, destiny is biology — has been a staple of Western thought for centuries.1
Whether the issue is who is who in Aristotle's polis2 or who
is poor in the late twentieth-century United States, the notion that difference and hierarchy in society are biologically determined continues
to enjoy credence even among social scientists who purport to explain
human society in other than genetic terms. In the West, biological explanations appear to be especially privileged over other ways of explaining
differences of gender, race, or class. Difference is expressed as degeneration. In tracing the genealogy of the idea of degeneration in European
thought, J. Edward Chamberlain and Sander Gilman noted the way it
was used to define certain kinds of difference, in the nineteenth century
in particular. "Initially, degeneration brought together two notions of
difference, one scientific — a deviation from an original type — and the
other moral, a deviation from a norm of behavior. But they were essentially the same notion, of a fall from grace, a deviation from the original
type."33Consequently, those in positions of power find it imperative to
establish their superior biology as a way of affirming their privilege and
dominance over "Others." Those who are different are seen as genetically inferior, and this, in turn, is used to account for their disadvantaged
social positions.
The notion of society that emerges from this conception is that society is constituted by bodies and as bodies — male bodies, female
bodies, Jewish bodies, Aryan bodies, black bodies, white bodies, rich
bodies, poor bodies. I am using the word "body" in two ways: first,
as a metonymy for biology and, second, to draw attention to the sheer
physicality that seems to attend being in Western culture. I refer to the
corporeal body as well as to metaphors of the body.
The body is given a logic of its own. It is believed that just by looking
at it one can tell a person's beliefs and social position or lack thereof.

T

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Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

As Naomi Scheman puts it in her discussion of the body politic in
premodern Europe:
The ways people knew their places in the world had to do with
their bodies and the histories of those bodies, and when they violated the prescriptions for those places, their bodies were punished,
often spectacularly. One's place in the body politic was as natural
as the places of the organs in one's body, and political disorder [was] as unnatural as the shifting and displacement of those
organs.4
Similarly, Elizabeth Grosz remarks on what she calls the "depth" of the
body in modern Western societies:
Our [Western] body forms are considered expressions of an interior, not inscriptions on a flat surface. By constructing a soul or
psyche for itself, the "civilized body" forms libidinal flows, sensations, experiences, and intensities into needs, wants— The body
becomes a text, a system of signs to be deciphered, read, and
read into. Social law is incarnated, "corporealized"I;] correlatively,
bodies are textualized, read by others as expressive of a subject's
psychic interior. A storehouse of inscriptions and messages between [the body's] external and internal boundaries... generates
or constructs the body's movements into "behavior," which then
[has] interpersonally and socially identifiable meanings and functions within a social system.5
Consequently, since the body is the bedrock on which the social order
is founded, the body is always in view and on view. As such, it invites
a gaze, a gaze of difference, a gaze of differentiation — the most historically constant being the gendered gaze. There is a sense in which phrases
such as "the social body" or "the body politic" are not just metaphors
but can be read literally. It is not surprising, then, that when the body
politic needed to be purified in Nazi Germany, certain kinds of bodies
had to be eliminated.6
The reason that the body has so much presence in the West is that
the world is primarily perceived by sight.7 The differentiation of human
bodies in terms of sex, skin color, and cranium size is a testament to the
powers attributed to "seeing." The gaze is an invitation to differentiate.
Different approaches to comprehending reality, then, suggest epistemological differences between societies. Relative to Yoruba society, which
is the focus of this book, the body has an exaggerated presence in the
Western conceptualization of society. The term "worldview," which is
used in the West to sum up the cultural logic of a society, captures the

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects 3

3

West's privileging of the visual. It is Eurocentric to use it to describe cultures that may privilege other senses. The term "world-sense" is a more
inclusive way of describing the conception of the world by different cultural groups. In this study, therefore, "worldview" will only be applied
to describe the Western cultural sense, and "world-sense" will be used
when describing the Yoruba or other cultures that may privilege senses
other than the visual or even a combination of senses.
The foregoing hardly represents the received view of Western history and social thought. Quite the contrary: until recently, the history
of Western societies has been presented as a documentation of rational
thought in which ideas are framed as the agents of history. If bodies appear at all, they are articulated as the debased side of human nature. The
preferred focus has been on the mind, lofty and high above the foibles of
the flesh. Early in Western discourse, a binary opposition between body
and mind emerged. The much-vaunted Cartesian dualism was only an
affirmation of a tradition8 in which the body was seen as a trap from
which any rational person had to escape. Ironically, even as the body
remained at the center of both sociopolitical categories and discourse,
many thinkers denied its existence for certain categories of people, most
notably themselves. "Bodylessness" has been a precondition of rational
thought. Women, primitives, Jews, Africans, the poor, and all those who
qualified for the label "different" in varying historical epochs have been
considered to be the embodied, dominated therefore by instinct and affect, reason being beyond them. They are the Other, and the Other is
a body.9
In pointing out the centrality of the body in the construction of difference in Western culture, one does not necessarily deny that there have
been certain traditions in the West that have attempted to explain differences according to criteria other than the presence or absence of certain
organs: the possession of a penis, the size of the brain, the shape of the
cranium, or the color of the skin. The Marxist tradition is especially
noteworthy in this regard in that it emphasized social relations as an
explanation for class inequality. However, the critique of Marxism as
androcentric by numerous feminist writers suggests that this paradigm
is also implicated in Western somatocentricity.10 Similarly, the establishment of disciplines such as sociology and anthropology, which purport
to explain society on the bases of human interactions, seems to suggest
the relegation of biological determinism in social thought. On closer examination, however, one finds that the body has hardly been banished
from social thought, not to mention its role in the constitution of social
status. This can be illustrated in the discipline of sociology. In a monograph on the body and society, Bryan Turner laments what he perceives

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Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

as the absence of the body in sociological inquiries. He attributes this
phenomenon of "absent bodies"11 to the fact that "sociology emerged
as a discipline which took the social meaning of human interaction as its
principal object of inquiry, claiming that the meaning of social actions
can never be reduced to biology or physiology."12
One could agree with Turner about the need to separate sociology
from eugenics and phrenology. However, to say that bodies have been
absent from sociological theories is to discount the fact that the social groups that are the subject matter of the discipline are essentially
understood as rooted in biology. They are categories based on perceptions of the different physical presence of various body-types. In the
contemporary U.S., so long as sociologists deal with so-called social
categories like the underclass, suburbanites, workers, farmers, voters,
citizens, and criminals (to mention a few categories that are historically
and in the cultural ethos understood as representing specific body-types),
there is no escape from biology. If the social realm is determined by
the kinds of bodies occupying it, then to what extent is there a social
realm, given that it is conceived to be biologically determined? For example, no one hearing the term "corporate executives" would assume
them to be women; and in the 1980s and 1990s, neither would anyone
spontaneously associate whites with the terms "underclass" or "gangs";
indeed, if someone were to construct an association between the terms,
their meanings would have to be shifted. Consequently, any sociologist who studies these categories cannot escape an underlying biological
insidiousness.
This omnipresence of biologically deterministic explanations in the
social sciences can be demonstrated with the category of the criminal
or criminal type in contemporary American society. Troy Duster, in
an excellent study of the resurgence of overt biological determinism in
intellectual circles, berates the eagerness of many researchers to associate criminality with genetic inheritance; he goes on to argue that other
interpretations of criminality are possible:
The prevailing economic interpretation explains crime rates in
terms of access to jobs and unemployment. A cultural interpretation tries to show differing cultural adjustments between the police
and those apprehended for crimes. A political interpretation sees
criminal activity as political interpretation, or pre-revolutionary. A
conflict interpretation sees this as an interest conflict over scarce
resources.13
Clearly, on the face of it, all these explanations of criminality are nonbiological; however, as long as the "population" or the social group

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects •

5

they are attempting to explain — in this case criminals who are black
and/or poor — is seen to represent a genetic grouping, the underlying assumptions about the genetic predisposition of that population or group
will structure the explanations proffered whether they are body-based
or not. This is tied to the fact that because of the history of racism, the
underlying research question (even if it is unstated) is not why certain
individuals commit crimes: it is actually why black people have such
a propensity to do so. The definition of what is criminal activity is very
much tied up with who (black, white, rich, poor) is involved in the activity.14 Likewise, the police, as a group, are assumed to be white. Similarly,
when studies are done of leadership in American society, the researchers
"discover" that most people in leadership positions are white males; no
matter what account these researchers give for this result, their statements will be read as explaining the predisposition of this group to
leadership.
The integrity of researchers is not being questioned here; my purpose
is not to label any group of scholars as racist in their intentions. On the
contrary, since the civil rights movement, social-scientific research has
been used to formulate policies that would abate if not end discrimination against subordinated groups. What must be underscored, however,
is how knowledge-production and dissemination in the United States are
inevitably embedded in what Michael Omi and Howard Winant call the
"everyday common sense of race — a way of comprehending, explaining and acting in the world."15 Race, then, is a fundamental organizing
principle in American society. It is institutionalized, and it functions
irrespective of the action of individual actors.
In the West, social identities are all interpreted through the "prism
of heritability,"16 to borrow Duster's phrase. Biological determinism is a
filter through which all knowledge about society is run. As mentioned
in the preface, I refer to this kind of thinking as body-reasoning;17 it is
a biologic interpretation of the social world. The point, again, is that as
long as social actors like managers, criminals, nurses, and the poor are
presented as groups and not as individuals, and as long as such groupings are conceived to be genetically constituted, then there is no escape
from biological determinism.
Against this background, the issue of gender difference is particularly
interesting in regard to the history and the constitution of difference in
European social practice and thought. The lengthy history of the embodiment of social categories is suggested by the myth fabricated by
Socrates to convince citizens of different ranks to accept whatever status was imposed upon them. Socrates explained the myth to Glaucon in
these terms:

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the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects
Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet
God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of
command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold,
wherefore also they have the greatest honor; others he has made
silver, to be auxiliaries; others again who are to be husbandmen
and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species
will generally be preserved in the children An Oracle says that
when a man of brass or iron guards the state, it will be destroyed.
Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens
believe in it?

Glaucon replies, "Not in the present generation; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale,
and their sons' sons, and posterity after them."18 Glaucon was mistaken
that the acceptance of the myth could be accomplished only in the next
generation: the myth of those born to rule was already in operation;
mothers, sisters, and daughters — women — were already excluded from
consideration in any of those ranks. In a context in which people were
ranked according to association with certain metals, women were, so to
speak, made of wood, and so were not even considered. Stephen Gould,
a historian of science, calls Glaucon's observation a prophecy, since history shows that Socrates' tale has been promulgated and believed by
subsequent generations.19 The point, however, is that even in Glaucon's
time, it was more than a prophecy: it was already a social practice to
exclude women from the ranks of rulers.
Paradoxically, in European thought, despite the fact that society was
seen to be inhabited by bodies, only women were perceived to be
embodied; men had no bodies — they were walking minds. Two social categories that emanated from this construction were the "man of
reason" (the thinker) and the "woman of the body," and they were oppositionally constructed. The idea that the man of reason often had the
woman of the body on his mind was clearly not entertained. As Michel
Foucault's History of Sexuality suggests, however, the man of ideas often
had the woman and indeed other bodies on his mind.20
In recent times, thanks in part to feminist scholarship, the body is beginning to receive the attention it deserves as a site and as material for
the explication of European history and thought.21 The distinctive contribution of feminist discourse to our understanding of Western societies
is that it makes explicit the gendered (therefore embodied) and maledominant nature of all Western institutions and discourses. The feminist
lens disrobes the man of ideas for all to see. Even discourses like science
that were assumed to be objective have been shown to be male-biased.22

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

7

The extent to which the body is implicated in the construction of sociopolitical categories and epistemologies cannot be overemphasized. As
noted earlier, Dorothy Smith has written that in Western societies "a
man's body gives credibility to his utterance, whereas a woman's body
takes it away from hers."23 Writing on the construction of masculinity, R. W. Connell notes that the body is inescapable in its construction
and that a stark physicalness underlies gender categories in the Western worldview: "In our [Western] culture, at least, the physical sense
of maleness and femaleness is central to the cultural interpretation of
gender. Masculine gender is (among other things) a certain feel to the
skin, certain muscular shapes and tensions, certain postures and ways of
moving, certain possibilities in sex."24
From the ancients to the moderns, gender has been a foundational
category upon which social categories have been erected. Hence, gender has been ontologically conceptualized. The category of the citizen,
which has been the cornerstone of much of Western political theory,
was male, despite the much-acclaimed Western democratic traditions.25
Elucidating Aristotle's categorization of the sexes, Elizabeth Spelman
writes: "A woman is a female who is free; a man is a male who is
a citizen."26 Women were excluded from the category of citizens because "penis possession"27 was one of the qualifications for citizenship.
Lorna Schiebinger notes in a study of the origins of modern science
and women's exclusion from European scientific institutions that "differences between the two sexes were reflections of a set of dualistic
principles that penetrated the cosmos as well as the bodies of men
and women."28 Differences and hierarchy, then, are enshrined on bodies; and bodies enshrine differences and hierarchy. Hence, dualisms like
nature/culture, public/private, and visible/invisible are variations on the
theme of male/female bodies hierarchically ordered, differentially placed
in relation to power, and spatially distanced one from the other.29
In the span of Western history, the justifications for the making of the
categories "man" and "woman" have not remained the same. On the
contrary, they have been dynamic. Although the boundaries are shifting
and the content of each category may change, the two categories have
remained hierarchical and in binary opposition. For Stephen Gould,
"the justification for ranking groups by inborn worth has varied with
the tide of Western history. Plato relied on dialectic, the church upon
dogma. For the past two centuries, scientific claims have become the primary agent of validating Plato's myth."30 The constant in this Western
narrative is the centrality of the body: two bodies on display, two sexes,
two categories persistently viewed — one in relation to the other. That
narrative is about the unwavering elaboration of the body as the site

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Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

and cause of differences and hierarchies in society. In the West, so long
as the issue is difference and social hierarchy, then the body is constantly
positioned, posed, exposed, and reexposed as their cause. Society, then,
is seen as an accurate reflection of genetic endowment — those with a
superior biology inevitably are those in superior social positions. No difference is elaborated without bodies that are positioned hierarchically. In
his book Making Sex,31 Thomas Laqueur gives a richly textured history
of the construction of sex from classical Greece to the contemporary
period, noting the changes in symbols and the shifts in meanings. The
point, however, is the centrality and persistence of the body in the construction of social categories. In view of this history, Freud's dictum that
anatomy is destiny was not original or exceptional; he was just more
explicit than many of his predecessors.

Social Orders and Biology: Natural or Constructed?
The idea that gender is socially constructed — that differences between
males and female are to be located in social practices, not in biological
facts — was one important insight that emerged early in second-wave
feminist scholarship. This finding was understandably taken to be radical in a culture in which difference, particularly gender difference, had
always been articulated as natural and, therefore, biologically determined. Gender as a social construction became the cornerstone of much
feminist discourse. The notion was particularly attractive because it was
interpreted to mean that gender differences were not ordained by nature;
they were mutable and therefore changeable. This in turn led to the opposition between social constructionism and biological determinism, as
if they were mutually exclusive.
Such a dichotomous presentation is unwarranted, however, because
the ubiquity of biologically rooted explanations for difference in Western social thought and practices is a reflection of the extent to which
biological explanations are found compelling.32 In other words, so long
as the issue is difference (whether the issue is why women breast-feed
babies or why they could not vote), old biologies will be found or
new biologies will be constructed to explain women's disadvantage. The
Western preoccupation with biology continues to generate constructions
of "new biologies" even as some of the old biological assumptions are
being dislodged. In fact, in the Western experience, social construction
and biological determinism have been two sides of the same coin, since
both ideas continue to reinforce each other. When social categories like
gender are constructed, new biologies of difference can be invented.

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

9

When biological interpretations are found to be compelling, social categories do derive their legitimacy and power from biology. In short, the
social and the biological feed on each other.
The biologization inherent in the Western articulation of social difference is, however, by no means universal. The debate in feminism
about what roles and which identities are natural and what aspects are
constructed only has meaning in a culture where social categories are
conceived as having no independent logic of their own. This debate, of
course, developed out of certain problems; therefore, it is logical that
in societies where such problems do not exist, there should be no such
debate. But then, due to imperialism, this debate has been universalized
to other cultures, and its immediate effect is to inject Western problems
where such issues originally did not exist. Even then, this debate does
not take us very far in societies where social roles and identities are not
conceived to be rooted in biology. By the same token, in cultures where
the visual sense is not privileged, and the body is not read as a blueprint
of society, invocations of biology are less likely to occur because such
explanations do not carry much weight in the social realm. That many
categories of difference are socially constructed in the West may well
suggest the mutability of categories, but it is also an invitation to endless
constructions of biology — in that there is no limit to what can be explained by the body-appeal. Thus biology is hardly mutable; it is much
more a combination of the Hydra and the Phoenix of Greek mythology.
Biology is forever mutating, not mutable. Ultimately, the most important
point is not that gender is socially constructed but the extent to which
biology itself is socially constructed and therefore inseparable from the
social.
The way in which the conceptual categories sex and gender functioned in feminist discourse was based on the assumption that biological
and social conceptions could be separated and applied universally. Thus
sex was presented as the natural category and gender as the social construction of the natural. But, subsequently, it became apparent that even
sex has elements of construction. In many feminist writings thereafter,
sex has served as the base and gender as the superstructure.33 In spite of
all efforts to separate the two, the distinction between sex and gender is
a red herring. In Western conceptualization, gender cannot exist without
sex since the body sits squarely at the base of both categories. Despite
the preeminence of feminist social constructionism, which claims a social deterministic approach to society, biological foundationalism,34 if
not reductionism, is still at the center of gender discourses, just as it is
at the center of all other discussions of society in the West.
Nevertheless, the idea that gender is socially constructed is significant

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• Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

from a cross-cultural perspective. In one of the earliest feminist texts to
assert the constructionist thesis and its need for cross-cultural grounding, Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna wrote that "by viewing
gender as a social construction, it is possible to see descriptions of other
cultures as evidence for alternative but equally real conceptions of what
it means to be woman or man."35 Yet, paradoxically, a fundamental assumption of feminist theory is that women's subordination is universal.
These two ideas are contradictory. The universality attributed to gender
asymmetry suggests a biological basis rather than a cultural one, given
that the human anatomy is universal whereas cultures speak in myriad
voices. That gender is socially constructed is said to mean that the criteria that make up male and female categories vary in different cultures. If
this is so, then it challenges the notion that there is a biological imperative at work. From this standpoint, then, gender categories are mutable,
and as such, gender then is denaturalized.
In fact, the categorization of women in feminist discourses as a homogeneous, bio-anatomically determined group which is always constituted
as powerless and victimized does not reflect the fact that gender relations
are social relations and, therefore, historically grounded and culturally
bound. If gender is socially constructed, then gender cannot behave in
the same way across time and space. If gender is a social construction,
then we must examine the various cultural/architectural sites where it
was constructed, and we must acknowledge that variously located actors
(aggregates, groups, interested parties) were part of the construction. We
must further acknowledge that if gender is a social construction, then
there was a specific time (in different cultural/architectural sites) when it
was "constructed" and therefore a time before which it was not. Thus,
gender, being a social construction, is also a historical and cultural phenomenon. Consequently, it is logical to assume that in some societies,
gender construction need not have existed at all.
From a cross-cultural perspective, the significance of this observation
is that one cannot assume the social organization of one culture (the
dominant West included) as universal or the interpretations of the experiences of one culture as explaining another one. On the one hand,
at a general, global level, the constructedness of gender does suggest its
mutability. On the other hand, at the local level — that is, within the
bounds of any particular culture — gender is mutable only if it is socially
constructed as such. Because, in Western societies, gender categories,
like all other social categories, are constructed with biological building
blocks, their mutability is questionable. The cultural logic of Western
social categories is founded on an ideology of biological determinism:
the conception that biology provides the rationale for the organization

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects s

11

of the social world. Thus, as pointed out earlier, this cultural logic is
actually a "bio-logic."

The "Sisterarchy": Feminism and Its "Other"
From a cross-cultural perspective, the implications of Western bio-logic
are far-reaching when one considers the fact that gender constructs in
feminist theory originated in the West, where men and women are conceived oppositionally and projected as embodied, genetically derived
social categories.36 The question, then, is this: On what basis are Western conceptual categories exportable or transferable to other cultures
that have a different cultural logic? This question is raised because despite the wonderful insight about the social construction of gender, the
way cross-cultural data have been used by many feminist writers undermines the notion that differing cultures may construct social categories
differently. For one thing, if different cultures necessarily always construct gender as feminism proposes that they do and must, then the idea
that gender is socially constructed is not sustainable.
The potential value of Western feminist social constructionism remains, therefore, largely unfulfilled, because feminism, like most other
Western theoretical frameworks for interpreting the social world, cannot get away from the prism of biology that necessarily perceives social
hierarchies as natural. Consequently, in cross-cultural gender studies,
theorists impose Western categories on non-Western cultures and then
project such categories as natural. The way in which dissimilar constructions of the social world in other cultures are used as "evidence" for
the constructedness of gender and the insistence that these cross-cultural
constructions are gender categories as they operate in the West nullify
the alternatives offered by the non-Western cultures and undermine the
claim that gender is a social construction.
Western ideas are imposed when non-Western social categories are
assimilated into the gender framework that emerged from a specific
sociohistorical and philosophical tradition. An example is the "discovery" of what has been labeled "third gender"37 or "alternative
genders"38 in a number of non-Western cultures. The fact that the African "woman marriage,"39 the Native American "berdache,"40 and
the South Asian "hijra"41 are presented as gender categories incorporates them into the Western bio-logic and gendered framework without
explication of their own sociocultural histories and constructions. A
number of questions are pertinent here. Are these social categories seen
as gendered in the cultures in question? From whose perspective are

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Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

they gendered? In fact, even the appropriateness of naming them "third
gender" is questionable since the Western cultural system, which uses
biology to map the social world, precludes the possibility of more than
two genders because gender is the elaboration of the perceived sexual
dimorphism of the human body into the social realm. The trajectory of
feminist discourse in the last twenty-five years has been determined by
the Western cultural environment of its founding and development.
Thus, in the beginning of second-wave feminism in Euro-America, sex
was defined as the biological facts of male and female bodies, and gender was defined as the social consequences that flowed from these facts.
In effect, each society was assumed to have a sex/gender system.42 The
most important point was that sex and gender are inextricably bound.
Over time, sex tended to be understood as the base and gender as the
superstructure. Subsequently, however, after much debate, even sex was
interpreted as socially constructed. Kessler and McKenna, one of the earliest research teams in this area, wrote that they "use gender, rather than
sex, even when referring to those aspects of being a woman (girl) or
man (boy) that have been viewed as biological. This will serve to emphasize our position that the element of social construction is primary
in all aspects of being male or female."43 Judith Butler, writing almost
fifteen years later, reiterates the interconnectedness of sex and gender
even more strongly:
It would make no sense, then, to define gender as the cultural
interpretation of sex, if sex itself is a gendered category. Gender
ought not to be conceived merely as a cultural inscription of meaning on a pregiven surface (a juridical conception); gender must
also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes
themselves are established. As a result, gender is not to culture as
sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by
which "sexed nature" or "a natural sex" is produced.44
Given the inseparability of sex and gender in the West, which results
from the use of biology as an ideology for mapping the social world,
the terms "sex" and "gender," as noted earlier, are essentially synonyms. To put this another way: since in Western constructions, physical
bodies are always social bodies, there is really no distinction between
sex and gender.45 In Yoruba society, in contrast, social relations derive
their legitimacy from social facts, not from biology. The bare biological
facts of pregnancy and parturition count only in regard to procreation,
where they must. Biological facts do not determine who can become the
monarch or who can trade in the market. In indigenous Yoruba conception, these questions were properly social questions, not biological

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

13

ones; hence, the nature of one's anatomy did not define one's social position. Consequently, the Yoruba social order requires a different kind
of map, not a gender map that assumes biology as the foundation for
the social.
The splitting of hairs over the relationship between gender and
sex, the debate on essentialism, the debates about differences among
women,46 and the preoccupation with gender bending/blending47 that
have characterized feminism are actually feminist versions of the enduring debate on nature versus nurture that is inherent in Western thought
and in the logic of its social hierarchies. These concerns are not necessarily inherent in the discourse of society as such but are a culture-specific
concern and issue. From a cross-cultural perspective, the more interesting point is the degree to which feminism, despite its radical local
stance, exhibits the same ethnocentric and imperialistic characteristics
of the Western discourses it sought to subvert. This has placed serious
limitations on its applicability outside of the culture that produced it.
As Kathy Ferguson reminds us: "The questions we can ask about the
world are enabled, and other questions disabled, by the frame that orders the questioning. When we are busy arguing about the questions that
appear within a certain frame, the frame itself becomes invisible; we become enframed within it."48 Though feminism in origin, by definition,
and by practice is a universalizing discourse, the concerns and questions
that have informed it are Western (and its audience too is apparently
assumed to be composed of just Westerners, given that many of the theorists tend to use the first-person plural "we" and "our culture" in their
writings). As such, feminism remains enframed by the tunnel vision and
the bio-logic of other Western discourses.
Yoruba society of southwestern Nigeria suggests a different scenario,
one in which the body is not always enlisted as the basis for social
classification. From a Yoruba stance, the body appears to have an exaggerated presence in Western thought and social practice, including
feminist theories. In the Yoruba world, particularly in pre-nineteenthcentury49 Oyo culture, society was conceived to be inhabited by people
in relation to one another. That is, the "physicality" of maleness or femaleness did not have social antecedents and therefore did not constitute
social categories. Social hierarchy was determined by social relations.
As noted earlier, how persons were situated in relationships shifted depending on those involved and the particular situation. The principle
that determined social organization was seniority, which was based on
chronological age. Yoruba kinship terms did not denote gender, and
other nonfamilial social categories were not gender-specific either. What
these Yoruba categories tell us is that the body is not always in view

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Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

and on view for categorization. The classic example is the female who
played the roles of oba (ruler), omo (offspring), gkg, aya, tyd (mother),
and aldivo (diviner-priest) all in one body. None of these kinship and
nonkinship social categories are gender-specific. One cannot place persons in the Yoruba categories just by looking at them. What they are
heard to say may be the most important cue. Seniority as the foundation
of Yoruba social intercourse is relational and dynamic; unlike gender, it
is not focused on the body.50
If the human body is universal, why does the body appear to have
an exaggerated presence in the West relative to Yorubaland? A comparative research framework reveals that one major difference stems
from which of the senses is privileged in the apprehension of reality —
sight in the West and a multiplicity of senses anchored by hearing in
Yorubaland. The tonality of Yoruba language predisposes one toward
an apprehension of reality that cannot marginalize the auditory. Consequently, relative to Western societies, there is a stronger need for a
broader contextualization in order to make sense of the world.51 For
example, Ifa divination, which is also a knowledge system in Yorubaland, has both visual and oral components.52 More fundamentally, the
distinction between Yoruba and the West symbolized by the focus on
different senses in the apprehension of reality involves more than perception — for the Yoruba, and indeed many other African societies, it is
about "a particular presence in the world — a world conceived of as a
whole in which all things are linked together."53 It concerns the many
worlds human beings inhabit; it does not privilege the physical world
over the metaphysical. A concentration on vision as the primary mode
of comprehending reality promotes what can be seen over that which
is not apparent to the eye; it misses the other levels and the nuances of
existence. David Lowe's comparison of sight and the sense of hearing
encapsulates some of the issues to which I wish to draw attention. He
writes:
Of the five senses, hearing is the most pervasive and penetrating.
I say this, although many, from Aristotle in Metaphysics to Hans
Jonas in Phenomenon of Life, have said that sight is most noble.
But sight is always directed at what is straight ahead And sight
cannot turn a corner, at least without the aid of a mirror. On the
other hand, sound comes to one, surrounds one for the time being with an acoustic space, full of timbre and nuances. It is more
proximate and suggestive than sight. Sight is always the perception
of the surface from a particular angle. But sound is that perception
able to penetrate beneath the surface Speech is the communica-

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

15

tion connecting one person with another. Therefore, the quality of
sound is fundamentally more vital and moving than that of sight.54
Just as the West's privileging of the visual over other senses has been
clearly demonstrated, so too the dominance of the auditory in Yorubaland can be shown.
In an interesting paper appropriately entitled "The Mind's Eye," feminist theorists Evelyn Fox Keller and Christine Grontkowski make the
following observation: "We [Euro-Americans] speak of knowledge as illumination, knowing as seeing, truth as light. How is it, we might ask,
that vision came to seem so apt a model for knowledge? And having
accepted it as such, how has the metaphor colored our conceptions of
knowledge?"55 These theorists go on to analyze the implications of the
privileging of sight over other senses for the conception of reality and
knowledge in the West. They examine the linkages between the privileging of vision and patriarchy, noting that the roots of Western thought in
the visual have yielded a dominant male logic.56 Explicating Jonas's observation that "to get the proper view, we take the proper distance,"57
they note the passive nature of sight, in that the subject of the gaze is
passive. They link the distance that seeing entails to the concept of objectivity and the lack of engagement between the "I" and the subject —
the Self and the Other.58 Indeed, the Other in the West is best described
as another body — separate and distant.
Feminism has not escaped the visual logic of Western thought.
The feminist focus on sexual difference, for instance, stems from this
legacy. Feminist theorist Nancy Chodorow has noted the primacy and
limitations of this feminist concentration on difference:
For our part as feminists, even as we want to eliminate gender inequality, hierarchy, and difference, we expect to find such features
in most social settings...We have begun from the assumption that
gender is always a salient feature of social life, and we do not
have theoretical approaches that emphasize sex similarities over
differences.59
Consequently, the assumption and deployment of patriarchy and
"women" as universals in many feminist writings are ethnocentric and
demonstrate the hegemony of the West over other cultural groupings.60
The emergence of patriarchy as a form of social organization in Western history is a function of the differentiation between male and female
bodies, a difference rooted in the visual, a difference that cannot be
reduced to biology and that has to be understood as being constituted
within particular historical and social realities. I am not suggesting that

16

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

gender categories are necessarily limited to the West, particularly in the
contemporary period. Rather, I am suggesting that discussions of social
categories should be defined and grounded in the local milieu, rather
than based on "universal" findings made in the West. A number of feminist scholars have questioned the assumption of universal patriarchy.
For example, the editors of a volume on Hausa women of northern Nigeria write: "A preconceived assumption of gender asymmetry actually
distorts many analyses, since it precludes the exploration of gender as
a fundamental component of social relations, inequality, processes of
production and reproduction, and ideology."61 Beyond the question of
asymmetry, however, a preconceived notion of gender as a universal social category is equally problematic. If the investigator assumes gender,
then gender categories will be found whether they exist or not.
Feminism is one of the latest Western theoretical fashions to be applied to African societies. Following the one-size-fits-all (or better still,
the Western-size-fits-all) approach to intellectual theorizing, it has taken
its place in a long series of Western paradigms — including Marxism, functionalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism — imposed on
African subjects. Academics have become one of the most effective
international hegemonizing forces, producing not homogenous social experiences but a homogeny of hegemonic forces. Western theories become
tools of hegemony as they are applied universally, on the assumption
that Western experiences define the human. For example, a study of Ga
residents of a neighborhood in Accra, Ghana, starts thus: "Improving
our analysis of women and class formation is necessary to refine our perceptions."62 Women? What women? Who qualifies to be women in this
cultural setting, and on what bases are they to be identified? These questions are legitimate ones to raise if researchers take the constructedness
of social categories seriously and take into account local conceptions of
reality. The pitfalls of preconceived notions and ethnocentricity become
obvious when the author of the study admits:
Another bias I began with I was forced to change. Before starting
fieldwork I was not particularly interested in economics, causal or
otherwise. But by the time I had tried an initial presurvey,... the
overweening importance of trading activities in pervading every
aspect of women's lives made a consideration of economics imperative. And when the time came to analyze the data in depth, the
most cogent explanations often were economic ones. I started out
to work with women; I ended by working with traders.63
Why, in the first place, did Claire Robertson, the author of this study,
start with women, and what distortions were introduced as a result?

Visualizing the Body Western Theories and African Subjects

17

What if she had started with traders? Would she have ended up with
women? Beginnings are important; adding other variables in midstream
does not prevent or solve distortions and misapprehensions. Like many
studies on Africans, half of Robertson's study seems to have been completed — and categories were already in place — before she met the
Ga people. Robertson's monograph is not atypical in African studies;
in fact, it is one of the better ones, particularly because unlike many
scholars, she is aware of some of her biases. The fundamental bias that
many Westerners, including Robertson, bring to the study of other societies is "body-reasoning," the assumption that biology determines social
position. Because "women" is a body-based category, it tends to be privileged by Western researchers over "traders," which is non-body-based.
Even when traders are taken seriously, they are embodied such that the
trader category, which in many West African societies is non-genderspecific, is turned into "market women," as if the explanation for their
involvement in this occupation is to be found in their breasts, or to put
it more scientifically, in the X chromosome.64 The more the Western
bio-logic is adopted, the more this body-based framework is inscribed
conceptually and into the social reality.
It is not clear that the body is a site of such elaboration of the social in the Ga world-sense or in other African cultures. This warrants
investigation before one can draw conclusions that many studies are
drawing on gender in African cultures. Why have African studies remained so dependent on Western theories, and what are the implications
for the constitution of knowledge about African realities? Contrary to
the most basic tenets of body-reasoning, all kinds of people, irrespective
of body-type, are implicated in constructing this biologically deterministic discourse. Body-reasoning is a cultural approach. Its origins are easily
locatable in European thought, but its tentacles have become all pervasive. Western hegemony appears in many different ways in African
studies, but the focus here will be on the hand-me-down theories that
are used to interpret African societies without any regard to fit or how
ragged they have become.

Western Hegemony in African Studies
An assessment of African studies as an interdisciplinary field will reveal
that it is by and large "reactionary."65 Reaction, in essence, has been
at once the driving force of African studies and its limitation in all its
branches. It does not matter whether any particular scholar is reacting
for or against the West; the point is that the West is at the center of

18

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

African knowledge-production. For instance, a whole generation of African historians have reconstructed African history, complete with kings,
empires, and even wars, to disprove European claims that Africans are
peoples without history.66 In other fields, a lot of ink has been spilled
(and trees felled) to refute or support assertions about whether some African peoples have states or are stateless peoples. Now, in the closing
years of the twentieth century, arguably the hottest debate in African
studies is whether Africans had philosophy before European contact or
whether Africans are best described as "philosophyless" peoples.67 This
is perhaps the most recent phase in an old Western concern with the
evolving status of African primitivism, where the indices have moved
from historylessness to statelessness and now to philosophylessness.
Whether the discussion focuses on history or historylessness, on having a state or being stateless, it is clear that the West is the norm
against which Africans continue to be measured by others and often
by themselves. The questions that inform research are developed in the
West, and the operative theories and concepts are derived from Western experiences. African experiences rarely inform theory in any field
of study; at best such experiences are exceptionalized. Consequently,
African studies continues to be "Westocentric," a term that reaches beyond "Eurocentric" to include North America. The presence of Africans
in the academy is important in and of itself and has made possible
some important changes. However, it has not brought about fundamental changes — despite the sociology-of-knowledge thesis and the politics
of identity.68 That the Euro-American scholar is Westocentric needs no
comment. But what accounts for the persistent Westocentricity of a lot
of African scholarship?
This question is posed against the background of a debate among
African scholars about the inability of many studies conducted by Africans to grapple with the real issues facing African countries. A number
of African thinkers have tried to explain why many studies conducted
by Africans fail to deal with those issues. The argument has been put
forward that many writings by Africans are too focused on exhibiting
Africa as different from Europe, instead of dealing with those real issues.
Africa is undoubtedly in the midst of a crisis of global proportions, and
this fact has lent an urgency to self-examination by African intellectuals.
I shall call one group of scholars the antinativists69 because of their very
critical stance toward any espousals of an African culture. The other
group, who entertain a notion of an African way of being, are referred
to as nativist70 in their orientation. For the antinativist, the problem of
the avoidance of central issues stems from the fact that many African
thinkers are cultural nationalists; the charge is that these thinkers are

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

19

unwilling to acknowledge Africa's failures and European technological
superiority and thus focus simply on how different Africa is from the
West. The antinativists argue further that the nativists set themselves
apart from the West in order to shore up their self-esteem. Literary critic
Abiola Irele sums up this antinativist viewpoint very well:
The whole movement in modern African thought has been to define this identity (African id, located in traditional culture). The
intellectual reaction to our humiliation under the colonial system
and to our devaluation has consisted in affirming our difference
from the white man, the European. This conscious effort of differentiation has produced the well-known ideologies of African
personality and negritude. In Senghor's formulation of the latter,
the idea of the African identity takes the form of an irreducible
essence of the race whose objective correlative is the traditional
culture. This essence is held to confer an estimable value upon our
past and to justify our claim to a separate existence. The whole
movement of mind in Black cultural nationalism, from Blyden to
Senghor, leads to a mystique of traditional forms of life.71
In this article, "In Praise of Alienation," Irele suggests that African intellectuals are unduly holding on to their culture. His solution is to accept
Africa's defeat and "alienation" and embrace Europe in all its grandeur
and scientific capacity. Only then will Africa have the modern tools to
confront its predicament. While no one can deny the myriad problems
facing Africa today and the need for leadership, intellectual and otherwise, critical thinkers like Irele have misdiagnosed the source of Africa's
problem. The solution they proffer, therefore, is suspect. The foundation
of Africa's problem is its close identification with Europe, which is the
source and the rationale for continued Western dominance of African
peoples and African thought.
My point here, then, is that African thought (from Blyden to Senghor;
through Kagame, Mbiti, and Idowu; to Irele, Hountondji, Bodunrin,
Oruka, and Wiredu), whether nativist or antinativist, has always focused not on difference from the West but on sameness with the West.
It is precisely because African intellectuals accept and identify so much
with European thinking that they have created African versions of Western things. They seem to think that the European mind-set is universal
and that, therefore, since Europeans have discovered the way the world
works and have laid the foundations of thought, all that Africans need
to do is to add their own "burnt" bricks on top of the foundation.
Senghorian negritude, for example (one of the earliest modern African
intellectual movements), far from being an exercise in difference, is ac-

20

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

tually a result of Senghor's acceptance of European categories of essence,
race, and reason and the linkages among the three. Senghor asserts that
since Africans are a race like Europeans, they must have their own brand
of essence. The fact that these are European-derived categories is not
given enough consideration. Body- or race-reasoning, after all, is not rational; it is not rational or reasonable to declare somebody a criminal
just by looking at his face, something racists do relentlessly. Stanislaus
Adotevi is correct when he writes that "negritude is the last-born child
of an ideology of domination It is the black way of being white,"72
The problem of importing Western concepts and categories into African studies and societies takes a decisive turn in the work of a number
of African feminist scholars. I find this development particularly unfortunate because this new generation of scholars has the potential to
radically transform African studies, which has by and large mirrored
the androcentrism of its European origins. Using all sorts of Western models, writers like Tola Pearce and Molara Ogundipe-Leslie have
characterized Yoruba society as patriarchal. Their mastery of Marxism, feminism, and structuralism is dazzling, but their understanding
of Yoruba culture is seriously lacking. Samuel Johnson, a pioneering
Yoruba intellectual, wrote of late nineteenth-century Yorubaland that
"educated natives of Yoruba are well acquainted with the history of
England and with that ofh Rome and Greece, but of the history of their
own country they know nothing whatever!"73 More than a century
later, Johnson's lament remains relevant. More recently, philosopher and
art historian Nkiru Nzegwu clearly framed the problem by asserting
that when a number of African feminist scholars rushed to characterize
indigenous society "as implicitly patriarchal, the question of the legitimacy of patriarchy as a valid transcultural category of analysis was
never raised d...............The problem of evaluating Igbo and Yoruba cultures on
the bases of their cultural other (the West) is that African societies are
misrepresented without first presenting their positions."74
Pearce's description of the Yoruba household as consisting of "a patriarch, his wives, his sons, and their wives"75 sounds like a depiction
of the pater familias of the Greeks or a description of Abraham's family
in the Bible and makes me wonder whether she has ever observed an
indigenous Yoruba lineage or has read earlier accounts of the Yoruba
family by N. A. Fadipe76 or Johnson.77 Ogundipe-Leslie, in a 1994
collection of mostly outdated essays, defines the Yoruba institution of
ilemosu as one in which women are left on the marriage shelf (ilemosu
is an institution whereby daughters return to their natal families after marriage and make the family home their lifelong residence). She
says, metaphorically, that the institution leaves women "growing fungi

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

21

on their bodies in the house."78 It is difficult to account for her interpretation of ilemosu; what it shows, however, is her flippant attitude
toward Yoruba culture — she has not bothered to ascertain the nature
and the meaning of the institution. The major limitation of OgundipeLeslie's collection of essays is that she provides no cultural context for
her claims. Because gender is preeminently a cultural construct, it cannot be theorized in a cultural vacuum, as many scholars tend to do.
Indeed, one of the useful things that African feminists can learn from
their Western "sisters" is the painstaking archaeological approach with
which many of them have conducted studies that have elucidated Western culture in previously unimaginable ways. African feminists can learn
a lot from the methods of feminist scholarship as they have been applied to the West, but they should scorn methods of Western, imperial,
feminist Africanists who impose feminism on the "colonies." African
scholars need to do serious work detailing and describing indigenous
African cultures from the inside out, not from the outside in. To date,
very little has been written about African societies in and of themselves;
rather, most scholarship is an exercise in propounding one newfangled
Western model or the other. The frame of reference of a culture has
to be identified and described on its own terms before one can make
the sort of gratuitous claims that are being made about patriarchy and
other social ills.
In Yoruba studies, the manifestation of this preoccupation with finding African equivalents of European things did not originate with
feminists. It is apparent in the work of an earlier generation of scholars such as the theologian E. Bolaji Idowu. He writes on religion that
"if they [Europeans] have God, we have Olodumare; if they have Jesus
Christ, we have Ela the god of salvation, same as them."79 The theme is
manifested in the work of the antinativists when they describe African
thought as prephilosophic and prescientific or claim that Africa is late
to philosophy. Whether the charge is that Africa was too early or too
late in doing philosophy, the idea is that the Western type of philosophy is a human universal. Such thinking suggests that Africa is the West
waiting to happen or that Africa is like the West, albeit a preformed
or deformed West. With this evolutionary bent, antinativists anthropologize Africa and deny its coevality with the West.80 There is nothing
wrong with Africans affirming their humanity and a common humanity
with their nemeses (i.e., Westerners); this affirmation was, indeed, necessary. The problem is that many African writers have assumed Western
manifestations of the human condition to be the human condition itself. To put this in another way: they have misapprehended the nature
of human universals.

22

22 Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

Many African scholars, then, have simply failed to distinguish between universals and Western particulars. That human groups have a
remembered past is a universal; that the Sumerians developed writing
and produced written history at a certain period in time is a particular
manifestation of this. That people organize themselves is universal; that
they do so under the structure of a state or some other specific form of
organization is a particular. That they organize production and reproduction (marriage) is a universal; that in certain places or during certain
epochs production and reproduction appear to be separated and separable are particulars. Exchange has always been the universal; sex, cowry
shells, gold, money, and credit cards are a few of its particulars. Selfreflection is integral to the human condition, but it is wrong to assume
that its Western manifestation — written philosophy — is the universal.
In the era of global capitalism, Coca Cola is universal, but it is hardly inherent in the human condition. To help avoid this confusion, a linguistic
distinction should be made between "universal" as a metaphysical term
referring to an inherent truth and "universal" as a descriptive term.
Modern African studies has remained dominated by Western modes
of apprehension of reality and knowledge-production for a number
of reasons. From a materialist perspective, Western dominance in academics is only a reflection of Western global economic and cultural
dominance. But that is not an adequate explanation because there are
non-Western regions in the world beyond Africa where indigenously
grounded studies and concerns have developed to a considerable degree.81 In the case of Africa, explanations about this dependency on
the West have focused on the colonial mentality of African intellectuals, the politics of research funding, and the common class interests or
privileged position of intellectuals wherever they are found. These explanations have validity. There is, however, another reason that is rarely
acknowledged, and even when it is highlighted, its effect is underestimated: that is, the nature of the academy, especially its logic, structure,
and practices. At the core of the problem is the way in which business is conducted in the knowledge-producing institutions; the way in
which the foundational questions that inform research are generated in
the West; the way in which theories and concepts are generated from
Western experiences; and the way in which scholars have to work within
disciplines, many of which were constituted to establish dominance over
Africa and all of which have logics of their own quite distinct from questions about the social identity of scholars. The point is that as long as
Africans take Western categories, like universities, bounded disciplines,
and theories, for granted and array themselves around them — for or
against does not matter — there can be no fundamental difference in

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

23

scholarship among these practitioners of knowledge, no matter what
their points of origin.
My claim here can be illustrated with reference to the debate about
African philosophy. In an anthology entitled African Philosophy: The
Essential Readings, Tsenay Serequeberhan, the editor of the volume,
notes that only African scholars are represented in the book; he goes
on to defend what he calls the exclusionist policy:
In my perception, this exclusionist approach is necessary — at least
at this time in the development of African Philosophy — precisely
because African philosophers need to formulate their differing positions in confrontation and in dialogue on their own, that is
minus foreign mediators/moderators or meddlers. African Philosophers must engage in a theoretical threshing in confrontation and
dialogue on their own.82
Looking at the papers in the collection, no matter their ideological
bent, one finds that they quote Levy-Bruhl, Descartes, Kant, Plato, and
Tempels, to mention a few names. These authors are, obviously, not
Africans. Europeans, in other words, were not excluded; they might
be dead Europeans, but they are still setting the agenda and consequently the terms of discourse. In fact, the question should be asked
as to who made these congregated Africans philosophers. How were
they initiated? By the so-called mediators/moderators and meddlers?83
These questions are pertinent since there were some real unnamed and
unacknowledged exclusions being practiced in the assembling of the anthology. These other exclusions should be part of the discussion because
they underscore very graphically the dilemmas of African scholarship.
This practice of excluding non-Africans as contributors while at the
same time accepting the Western/academic terms of discourse as givens
is problematic and unrealistic. It should be obvious that it is next to
impossible to create an African theoretical space when the ground of
discourse has been crowded by the DWEMs — dead, white, European
males.84 The "culture wars" over what should be included in the canon
and indeed the curriculum in universities in the United States in the
1980s underscored this point. Let me be clear about what the concern is
here. It is not that Africans should not read whatever they please — in
fact we must read widely in order to be able to face the challenges posed
by late twentieth-century global capitalism. The point is that the foundations of African thought cannot rest on Western intellectual traditions
that have as one of their enduring features the projection of Africans as
Other and our consequent domination.

24

izing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

At the level of intellectual production, we should recognize that theories are not mechanical tools; they affect (some will say determine) how
we think, who we think about, what we think, and who thinks with us.
Sometimes scholars seem to forget that intellectual tools are supposed
to frame research and thinking. As long as the "ancestor worship"85
of academic practice is not questioned, scholars in African studies are
bound to produce scholarship that does not focus primarily on Africa —
for those "ancestors" not only were non-Africans but were hostile to
African interests. The foundational questions of research in many disciplines are generated in the West. A recent anthology entitled Africa
and the Disciplines asks the very Westocentric and ridiculous question:
What has Africa contributed to the disciplines?86 (Following the logic of
the question, consider what Africans contributed to craniometry — our
heads; and to French anthropologie — our butts!)87 The more important
issue for Africa is what the disciplines and the practitioners of disciplines
like anthropology have done to Africa.88
In general, African intellectuals seem to underestimate or fail to grasp
the implications of academic practices for the production of knowledge.
Research, teaching, and learning in academic institutions are not innocuous business practices. Kwame Anthony Appiah makes this point in an
essay reflecting on the limitations of what he calls the nativist critique of
the West in the field of African literature: "The Western emperor has
ordered the natives to exchange their robes for trousers: their act of
defiance is to insist on tailoring them from homespun material. Given
their arguments, plainly, the cultural nationalists do not go far enough;
they are blind to the fact that their nativist demands inhabit a Western
architecture."89 Appiah's own unabashed and uncritical acceptance of
the West and his dismissal of Africa are understandable given his matrilineal descent lines,90 but this is hardly the solution for other African
scholars whose abusua (matrilineage) is located on African soil, not in
England. It is remarkable that despite Appiah's antinativist stance in relation to African culture, he is an unapologetic nativist himself. Appiah
is a Euro-nativist; what he opposes is African nativism. His privileging
of European categories of thought and practice (such as patrilineality)
over Akan matrilineality in his book In My Father's House attests to
his erasure of the norms of his father's house (African norms) and the
imposition of the values of his mother's house (Anglo-Saxon norms) on
Africa.91
Appiah, however, makes a valid point when he notes that many African critics of the West fail to realize that acceptance of the Western
"architecture" at one level necessarily means embracing the "furnishings" also. In short, certain things go with the territory — academic and

Visualizing the Body: Western Theories and African Subjects

25

otherwise. To think that one can inhabit the territory and then change
the rules is a fallacy because the rules and the territory are not separable;
they are mutually constituting. The one does not exist without the other.
That said, the position of Appiah and other antinativists is still deeply
flawed, in part because of a huge oversight. The antinativist admonition
that Africa should embrace the West as a new strategy for the future
is flawed because this is actually what African leaders have done in the
past and where we still are at present: that is, in the critical embrace of
the West. Embracing the West is nothing new; it is actually a failed program of action. The idea that Africa can make a choice about whether it
wants to embrace the West or not is a displaced metaphor. The point is
that Africa is already locked in an embrace with the West; the challenge
is how to extricate ourselves and how much. It is a fundamental problem because without this necessary loosening we continue to mistake the
West for the Self and therefore see ourselves as the Other.
Appiah makes the claim that the nativist call for Afrocentricity in the
reading and writing of African literature fails to appreciate the multiplicity of the heritage of modern African writers and hence fails to see
that, for example, "Soyinka's reference to Euripides is as real as his
appeal to Ogun."92 Appiah himself, however, fails to understand the
nature of Soyinka's references to Ogun and Euripides. The problem is
not Soyinka's appeal to Euripides; the problem is Appiah's failure to
grasp that Soyinka's appeals to Euripides and Ogun are not of the same
order.93 To take a cue from Yoruba culture: in the practice of Yoruba
religion, despite the 40194 orisa (gods) to which anybody can appeal, all
lineages and individuals have their own orisa that they propitiate first
before they appeal to the other gods. They sehhhcure their own base first,
and it is only after this hhhhhhhhas been done that they can join in the worship
of other gods. There is no question that people can and do change their
gods; the fallacy here is the idea that one cahn start with multiple gods.
There is always a privileging going on, whether this is acknowledged or
not. Ogun and Euripides cannot be passed off as an expression of "on
the one hand and on the other hand (otoh-bot